tv Book Discussion on Men We Reaped CSPAN December 31, 2013 9:00pm-9:51pm EST
next on booktv, jesmyn ward discusses her memorialrys about growing up poor in mississippi and the deaths of five men from her hometown that she was close to, including her younger brother. she talks about the circumstances of their deaths and the role that race, poverty, and lack of opportunity played their early demise. this is about 15 minutes. [applause] >> it's good to be here. i as i talk to more people about
the memoir, i always say, inevitably, talk to someone about it and i say it's the hardest book if a ever written and i never want to write not memoir ever again because it was so hard, and i always laugh after i say it. but even though it was very difficult, i still believe in -- i believe in the book. i believe that it tells a story that is worth telling. and that in the end, it's tempting to say something important. so even though it was very hard for me, i don't regret it. i just know that i won't hopefully do it again. so i -- i figured eye'd read a little bit from the prologue,
jess min ward. to walk through the glass doors to the large classrooms, the old desks, my classmates pernlg order the back of them wearing college suits and khaki shorts. the legs spread, the eye liner blew. i didn't want them to look at me after saying something about didn't want to have to avert my eyes so they didn't see me studying them and the entitlement they wore like another piece of clothing. our drive home took us through new orleans east across the bay you. it took titus in to
mississippi. we took i-10 past the pond space center, space st. louis, past diamond head to delittle. once there we would exited the highway, driven past, the railroad tracks. past the wooden houses and small sandy yards. trees sheeting the shade. here horses still in fields munching grass, seeking cooling. goat chewing fence posts. delittle -- the two towns were all of my family hailed from are not new orleans. it squats besides the manmade beach of gulf of mexico alongside long beach. bait of st. louis at the back. while delittle hugs the back of the baif st. -- bay of st. louis. the streets of both towns are sleepy through much of the summer. and through much of the winter
whether temperatures hoover near freezing. in delittle during the summers, there's sometimes crowds on sundays at county park because younger people come out to play bsh basketball and play music from the cars. in the spring the older people gather at the local baseball field while negro leagues come tout play. on halloween people walk or ride on the back of pickup trucks through the neighborhood to trick or treat. on all saints day families gather around loved ones graves. they talk to the evening burn fire, waive away the last of the fall gnats. this is not the murder capital. most of the black families in delittle have lived there as far back they can remember. in-houses many of them built themselves. the houses, small shotguns in a frames were built.
the old nest the '30s by great grandpas. the next in the '50s by grandparent, the next in the '70s and '80s by parents. these modest houses, ours included, had two to three bedrooms with dirt driveways. poor and working class but proud. there's no public housing at all in delittle and the project housing that before hurricane katrina consisted of several small red brick duplexes. in a few subdivisions with single family homes which housed some black people and vamentz. now they build two and three bedroom houses where there's public housing stood. and the houses go quickly with those displaced from the storm. young adults want to live in the hometown. hurricane can katrina may have been impossible for several
years since it decimated what was close toast the bayou. coming home to delittle as an adult has been hard for the reason. a concrete one. then there are abstract reasons too. from 2002 to 2004, five black young men i grew up with died all violently and semiimply unrelated deaths. the first was my brother, joshua. in october of 2000. the second was ronald in december of 2002. the third was c.j. in january of 2004. the fourth, was february of 2004. the last was roger, in june of 2004. that's a brutal list and the immediacy and relentlessness and list that silences people. it silenced me far long time. to say this is difficult is understatement. telling the story is hardest thing i have ever done. but my -- i cannot forget that. i cannot forget that what i'm
walking the street of delittle. streets that seem even bare since katrina. streets that seem more empty since the deaths where instead of hearing my friend and my brother playing music from the cars at the county park, the only sound i hear is the tortured parrot that one of my cousin own paps parrot that screams so sowedly it sounds in the neighborhood like a wounded child. i decide this is not right. that i must give voice to the story. because this is my story, just as it is the story of lost young men. it's my family's story just as it is my community's story. it is not straightforward. to tell it i must tell the story of my town and the history of my community. and then i must revisit each of
the five young black men who died follow them back tbhard time from rogers death to c.j.'s death to rojtd's death to my brother's death. at the same time, i must tell the story before the time. between the chapters where my friends and brother live and speak and breathe again for a few paltry pages, i must write about my family and how i grew up. my hope is that learning something about our lives and the lives of people in my community will mean that when i get to the heart, when my march forward through the past and back ward from the present meet in the middle with my brother's death. i'll understand a bit better why the epidemic happened. about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lax public and personal responsibility festered and turned soured. hopefully, i'll understand why my brother died while i live. and why i've been salgded with the rotten [ bleep ]
story. skipping forward a bit. the prologue. to the last chapter. we are here. in my search for words to tell the story, i found nor statistics about what it means to be black and poor in the south. 38% of mississippi's population is black. it is one of six states where african-americans institute at least a quarter of the population. in 2009, the poverty rate was greater in the south and greater in mississippi where 23.1 percent of population lives below the poverty level. in 2001 a report by the united states census bureau indicated that mississippi was the poorest state in the country. in part because there has been little money apportioned for rural development. the state has median household
income of $34 ,000. mississippi ranks a dead last in the united on u.s. human development index a comparative measure life expectancy of literacy, education, and standards of living. about 35% of black missippians live below the poverty level compared to the 11% of whites. and about one of every 12 black mississippi men in the 20s an inmate in the mississippi prison system. recently research at columbia university school of public health found that poverty, lack of education, and poor social support contribute to as many deaths as heart attack, stroke, and lung cancer in the united states. these are the numbers that bear fruit in reality. by the numbers, by all the official records, here at the con influence of history of racism, poverty, and economic power this is what our lives are
worth. nothing. we inherit these things that breed despair and self-hatred and tragedy multiplies. for years i carry the weight of the despair with me. it was heaviest right after joshua died when i lifed and worked in new york city. sometimes i hide my wrist how easy it would be to take raiser across one and wondered if i could bleed out from just managing one cut. so i got a tattoo of my brother's signature on the inside of my left wrist so it seemed like my brother had signed me before he died. made the mark across the cutting line. i did it because i knew that i could never make that fatal cut across his name. and when i fought through the crowds in grand central station while trying to find a place to eat. a place where i could sit in the corner alone and disappear to the wall behind me. while i walked past women after
men felt all the people touching and crowding me while making me realize that i never been so lonely. so alone. even though i was surrounded by young men in suits and older women in black coats, and sticky faced children. i fantasized cutting the right wrist. get another tattoo any brother's handwriting on the inside of my right wrist. love brother is how he signed one letter he wrote me while i was in college. love brother is what the tattoo says. after i left new york, i found the adage about time healing all wowbdz to be false. grief doesn't fade. grief scabs over like my scars and pools to new painful configuration. it hurts in new ways. we're never free from grief. we are never free from the feeling that we have failed. we are never free from self-loathing. we are never free from the feeling that something is wrong with us.
not with the world that made this mess. but this grief, for all the awful weight, insists my that my brother matters. roger, c.j., and ronald says they matter. i have written only the nugget of my friend's lives. this story is only hint of what my brother's life was worth. more than the 19 years he lived, more than the 13 years he's been dead. it is worth more than i can say. and there's my problem because all i can do in the end is say. the summer before joshua died, i never told him no when he asked me to ride. we argued and forgot we argued. each time joshua invited me to come along with him, i felt special he would ask. after he died, i wonder if he had known. the last time we road is the one
i remember most clearly. he wore gene shirts and wife beater and his hair uncomed. i followed him out of the front door. it was night and the air was wet and warm. when we got in the car, the seats felt damp. when josh cranked the car it -- scratched and rumbled to life. we rolled down the windows manually. the snob -- he played songs on the radio that beat a feeling. years later i can only remember one of the songs. it was the last. "all i got is you." i got something i want to play for you, joshua said. he turned up the music, blasted it. this for all the families he said. this is for yours, i heard. the trunk rattled. thinking about the past when he was young, he said, the -- [inaudible] they were poor he said.
armadillos cent along ditches. his father left him at the age 77. -- she cried he said. the pines waived to the dark. the trees fell away like great waives. sometimes i look up at the stars and analyze the sky and ask myself was i meant to be here. why, he spat like he could not wait to get it out of him. could not bear keeping it inside any longer. this remind me of us, josh said. we road away from saint stevens and away from the house and the cluster of houses of our black neighborhood out to the white outskirts of delittle toward the bio and over the bridges. the water shimmering silver in the night. the grass black. my brother played song over and over again. all we had been and become sat us with like another sib level ealing. we road to the beach, along
scenic avenue he would die once later. so we could see the gulf stretching over the hires. the sands of white and tombstones. i looked away so he couldn't see my face and cried as we road. thinking of our mother, our father. i wiped my face it and ashamed. josh didn't say anything. he drove us away from the beach and pack up through the bay you and it to the country away from the houses and lights. we rode along over the sky. the wind push our chests with the firm hand in to the seats of the car. we rode like we could drive far
and long enough to outrun our stories. what he said to all the families that went through the strug. but in the end, we could not. i write these word to find joshua. to assert that what has happened happened. in a vain attempt find meaning. in the end, i know little. some small facts. i love joshua. he was here. he lived. something vast and large took him. took all of my friends. roger, c.j., and ronald. once they lived. we tried to outpace the thing that chased us that said you are nothing. we tried to ignore it. but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said mumbling along brainwashed. i'm nothing. we drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other. there's a great darkness bearing down our lives.
and no one acknowledges it. thank you. [applause] >> so. [laughter] i guess i'll answer some questions. if anybody has questions. [laughter] [inaudible question] >> the question is what was i doing in new york? >> after i graduated from stanford, i moved home, you know, to the coast, and i was trying to find a job. and i had an english -- i had a bachelors in english. i also had a master's degree in communication. but i couldn't find a job. so i searched for around six
months, and while i was there, searching and couldn't find a job. that's when my brother died. after he died, i actually moved to new york because i knew people that live there had. there were a few people i went to school that live there had. i had friends who knew people that worked in the publishing industry at random house, and they said that maybe they could get me an interview. by that time i had run up a ridiculous amount of credit card debt. and, you know, was doing holiday work at the tommy hill figure outlet and hating life. i moved to new york city and after around five months of searching for a job there, i was able to get a job at random house working as a managing editorial assistant.
while i was there i realized what i wanted to be doing was writing. and, you know, at that time i figured, you know, my brother's death made me, of course, question things; right. it made me realize that automatic of the those things i worried about beforehand, you know, didn't matter. and they needed to attempt to do something with my life that would, you know, that would make it worth living for me. when i asked myself -- to that was writing. while i was in new york, i begin to, you know, attempt to write more short stories because that the point i hasn't written a lot. and the short stories were rough and bad. but they were good enough [laughter] to get me in to university of michigan. so then i went to the university of michigan and -- i received my degree.
it took a long time to pay off the credit card. >> you mentioned something about delisle is a -- with that you lived elsewhere. was it hard to communicate where your place was? and how it was different from new orleans to delisle. >> so the question is, you know, was it difficult for me to, you know, to communicate to people what delisle was liker versus new orleans. >> yeah.
exactly. you know, most of the time i when i say i'm from a small town and when i say that people look at me like i'm craze. -- crazy. it's near -- and maybe one person out of 100 will say, oh, i've heard of that town. and then so then i have to say well, it's like the long beach. no response. which is next to gulf port and someone say. okay. by the time i get to bilo x i hopefully they have some idea where i'm talking about. but i know far lot of people that, you know, default is new orleans. when i say the way i can get anyone to release where it ised at. i say i'm about 50 miles away from new orleans. and the people will, you know, know. but i think that, you know, i ran that was problematic for me particularly, i guess, after -- came out. because, you know, i think it's part of the reason that i wrote
"salvage the bone." because, you know, at lough -- the conversation that was happening that the time after katrina was, you know, basically about new orleans; right. and no one, i mean, not many were payings attention to the fact that, you know, the coast had been cease -- decimated. i wanted to tell that story. i wanted to see that, you know, represented in the book. i'm hoping it does a pretty good job of doing that; right. again of making -- making delisle a real place and making it to live in the
imagination of the reader. [inaudible question] >> you d you find challenging as an african-american woman to complete your -- [inaudible] and find the support you need? >> let's see. i was writing short stories and working on a novel, you know, that was set in, you know, on the gulf coast in mississippi. it was set in mississippi. you know, i felt like -- let's see. so, you know, the professors at university of michigan were great. and i think they, you know, it was easier for them -- i think because of the job and they're good at what they do. it was easy for them to read, you know, my work and to figure out you know what i was attempting to accomplish on the page and give me the feedback that helped me get the story
there. you know, and helped it accomplish whatever it was, you know, trying to accomplish. you know, my workshop was hit or miss. there a couple of people in the workshop that got it right off the bat, you know, they immediately understood what i was attempting to do and able to give me good, constructive, you know, feedback to get it there. but some, you know, -- i think the majority of my classmates did not. i can tell from the -- the reason i knew this because the kind of feedback i was getting in workshops were -- , i mean, it was, you know, their reading of my work was completely confusing. you know, i felt like they had the preconceived ideas of about what i think -- they thought i should be writing about. because i wasn't, i think that maybe that complicated their reading of my work and; therefore, sort of, you know, gradualed their response.
it was difficult but i was lucky because, i mean, -- i at least had, you know, i want to say three good readers out of my cohorts. that was enough. but then i was also lucky, again, because i was able to -- i got to -- and i did a fell loyship. that was a different experience. that, you know, that was fantastic. everyone, you know, -- they are so well read and have been doing, you know, they have been workshopping and responding to their peers' work for so long they were just -- i felt like i didn't -- there were no bad readers. you know, they were all great. i think maybe sometimes it just depends on what, you know, where you're at -- where you are. sometimes you get lucky and sometimes, you know, you, you know, you're not so lucky. but it didn't change what i wrote. you know, even though i was
getting bad feedback. i wrote about the people i wrote about and the people i wrote about because it was important to me. just hang in there, i think. that's the advice, you know, just hang in there. you'll find the readers. sometimes it just takes awhile. i feel like there are hands in the back. [inaudible question] >> i hate to quote you. i love the way you said it's decided it's not right you must give to the voice. and sort of that experience of bearing witness and trying to, like, articulate the lives that don't get an articulate voice because the so few people exposed to the life then have the ability to articulate it from the inside because of the way that the world works down here; right. and so -- but i guess my question is, have you figured out ways to expose those kids that are living there now? because i feel like i could literally save, like, save boys' lives.
not just boys. i feel like, like, how do we get this book in to the hands of people who need to hear that this is what their life looks like? you know, how do we do that? >> i'm, you know, it's -- i'm working on it. you know, still, i mean, i'm not, you know, i'm not as young as i was, you know, like, in the events i'm writing about in the book but, you know, i still know a lot of kids in the neighborhood. i have given a couple of them copies of my book, you know, if they express interest in reading it. i'm like okay, you're going read it right? and whenever i see them i bug them and badger them about whether or not they have read it. a couple of them, i started it and a few chapters in. some of them i'm actually, like, you know, you know, giving my, you know, my few copies i get but giving it to them. they're passing it along to friends. i hope they're telling me
they're reading it. i'm hoping they are reading it. i've actually been talking to my sister over the past couple of -- days about speakinged at the school because the school is interested in having me come. and so i know -- especially if i do more events like that, you know, that are really, really vocal then i can reach the kind of kids that -- the kids that i need, you know, to reach, you know, and they'll get a chance to read the story and see that, you know, that they're not the first ones, you know, that have to go through this, you know, and that are living like this. ..
just by the fact that, i feel just living there i feel like that makes a difference. just so they can see that, that you can do it. you know, whatever your dream may be at some point but i feel like it's true in a way. it's obviously me speaking but whatever it is that you dreamed of doing that seems like something that maybe the world is telling you you will never be able to do or in your neighborhood, that you don't see anyone else doing, right? i want to show them that it's
possible and it takes a lot of hard work and it takes a lot of luck but if you have the combination of those two it can actually happen. i'm hoping just living their and as i say doing more of those kinds of events in talking to kids that i know that will make a difference. i feel like there is -- yes. >> the second part of my question which is whether they get it now but you describe the kids in school with blue eyeliner and wearing entitlement like clothes and my question is did any of them figure out what a wild card they had in their midst when they were going to school with somebody who would go to stanford and michigan and new york and did any of them figure it out and have they figured out that you are a national book award winner? [laughter] >> he i think some of them have. i think some of them have.
i'm thinking of one person in particular but i feel like a few people, a few of my schoolmates who for them especially in the beginning when i was applying and getting accepted to a lot of you know pretty as tedious schools, who thought the only reason she is getting it is because of affirmative action. i wasn't doing anything. you know was just because i was locked and i was a girl and therefore that was why i was getting into all these places. in the beginning there were few people who just do not didn't think at all that i had any kind of promise. but i think that pretty much everyone now out of my schoolmates, they know what i have done. and i'm friends with some of them still and i have gone to the school a couple of times this past summer and visited.
it's just an elementary school now but i have gone back. high school is you know, i think it's hard for everyone. kids are so self-involved that you know i think that some of that, some of the race based prejudice, i think that is in their just because it's high school. any other questions? >> kind of a personal question. you said your brother was 19. i lost my brother when he was 19 through violent crime and he would be 50 now. it was a long time ago but in my dreams he is 19 forever. but i'm wondering a relationship of your art process to the grief
and the loss. not so much the end product but the process of writing and the process of your art, did that provide some healing or facilitate? i am not sure how to ask the question. >> understand the question. you are sort of asking how my grief affected the process of writing and if that process of writing about my grief and loss, if that changed me in some way or if he healed me in some way. you know, in the beginning, say the first first-order five years after my brother died, so around 2005, it made it so that it was very hard for me to write. it was very hard for me to get anything on the page. and then when i began writing, all of the fiction in a way i
feel like i was writing to my brother and all the fiction that i wrote. he was popping up in all of my different characters. he was actually showing his face on the page and i wasn't aware of it at the time. now looking back i feel like that is what was happening. so you know i didn't begin working on this until around 2010, the memoir, until 2010 and i keep saying this but it was. it was a very difficult book to write an part of the reason it was so difficult, one i had to write about the events and that was hard enough reliving my brothers deaths and my friends deaths and also growing up. that was difficult. reliving all of those things are just difficult in the writing but i'd did that in the first draft but then what was even
more difficult was writing the next draft, the revision, because i realized and my wonderful, wonderful editor had helped me realize that i had basically written a memoir where all i did was write the events and there was no connective tissue there. as a presence, i wasn't a presence in the text because i wasn't assessing, i wasn't trying to figure things out. i wasn't making the corrections for the reader. i wasn't doing the emotional work that i needed to do because it was so painful. it took my editor to point that out to me, that i was holding the material at arm's length away from me and not doing the work that i needed to do. when i went back and the subsequent drafts and began doing that work, began asking
myself why things happened, why some acted in certain ways and others acted in certain ways in writing that into the book, that process, i feel like that broke me every day. but in the end, i think that it was helpful in some ways to do that. because even though writing about it doesn't erase it and it doesn't erase the things that happened that doing that emotional work that i had to do through the writing, and i say that it were up to me and it did. it broke me in certain ways but it made it so that when i healed i could heal in a healthier way. then i had sort of healed at the time when all those things were happening. so in some ways it was help will
let you know nothing changes the loss. nothing wipes away the loss unfortunately. >> so growing up, what gave you the confidence and the power and who gave you that support that even let you even think about applying to the university of michigan or the things that you have done and gave you that confidence, and growing up what was that thing that set you going on that path? >> you know that's an interesting question. i think it helped that i always loved to read. i grew up, i love to read ever since i learned how to read. so i was always through reading comics boats to the larger outside world. and so i think that was
important because it broadened my horizons and then of course i love to write. so i think that helps too but i wasn't, i wasn't a confident kid there was nothing about me that was confident. i was driven but i think i was driven not high confidence but by desperation. you know because of where i came from and you know i so wanted to get out into that larger world and see what the rest of the world was about, but that is what drove me to do what i did. i mean it also helps, two things. it helps one, that my mother always told me you were going to college. she had gone to a little bit of community college. she took a few community college classes but she didn't finish
and some of her brothers and sisters didn't even graduate high school. but from the beginning, my grandmother has a seventh grade education and she went to school through seventh grade but when i was little, even like four my mother was like you're going to college someday. it helped that i went to the school that i did because there was an infrastructure in place at the school because they were accustomed to dealing with kids. all the kids that graduated in each class, each graduating class, they went to college and it wasn't a question of any kids not going to college. so there was that infrastructure was there. so that was helpful too. i don't know how successful i would have been in that process without that infrastructure in place.
>> you were in residence at ole miss. can you share a little bit about that experience? >> i actually wrote the first draft of this book when i was in residence here at ole miss, so i mean you know it's a really great experience because you have the luxury of time and funding to hopefully right the first draft of the book in a year. that's really rare. i taught some classes at the university. i taught a few undergrad classes. i think i taught one and then i taught at graduation class -- graduate class. although students were engaged with the work and really curious and my undergrads, they always surprised me in class.
they were all doing this off the wall experimental fiction that i hadn't encountered, that's totally opposite my style but i loved working with them because i felt like it shocked me into thinking about fiction in different ways. i had a really good time while i was here. i think it was you know, it was a wonderful experience and it was really productive for me. i hope the students had a good time too. it seems like some of the grad students -- so i hope they had a good time too. >> what do you think your brothers and your friends would think about the book and did you think about that as you wrote it? >> you now, i did think about it. you know i would hope, i would hope that they would think that
i did a good job. i was worried as i was writing it. every page, i was worried on every page. every page was a struggle because i was very committed to telling the truth and every page i could navigate the truth. how much of the truth will i include? it was most evident when i was writing the sections on my brother. i know there were some things that i talked about the first time we stood out on the street and he told me he was selling crack at 14. we would talk about it in our conversations that we had, we would talk about it in so i worried about it when i was writing it. i worried if i was making the right decision and share that information. but then i think what i know if my brother, i feel like he would
understand the reason that i made the decision that i made to share what i shared about him. because i think, you know i think that he would see, that he would see the larger sort of picture, that he would understand, understand the connections i'm trying to make in the book between history and the lives that we lead and the present. i think that he would believe in me and believe in what i have done. i think if he were here and he had a chance to read it, that he would probably get a kick out of the fact that i've written about him. i feel like you know some of my cousins are in the book and some of my friends and they get a kick out of the fact that i'm
writing about them. i think you would probably find it funny and exciting that he was written about. >> who are some of the writers who impressed you the most? >> let's see, so john edgar wildman. i think he -- he wrote mmr called my brother's keeper. yes. that was a very important book to me when i read it. dorothy addison. so many things i know for sure is the title of that memoir that she wrote. i love that it's brutal on the street -- brutal honesty. who else? a book by nick flynn and i think
the reason that book was important to me specifically the memoir was because his structure is weird. you know it's not the usual accepted structure so i think i needed to see that done in another memoir to realize that i maybe could put off with a lot of work. that's a memoir that was really useful to me when i was working on this one. and then i'd love, it's not a memoir but i love james baldwin creation of nonfiction. i read his essay about when his dad died and i can't remember the title right now of course. i love that essay. i love that essay. you know i was at the university
of michigan and since them i've read it over and over again. the way they see sort of so eloquently talks about the personal and these larger issues like race in america. just so you to fully and so do deftly. it's amazing to me each time i read it so i'm hoping that one day i can be on his level. he is fantastic. i was thinking about his work a lot while i was writing this. >> when i was reading your book and read about the time of -- it was right about the time of the trayvon martin/george chairman and trial and it struck me as the back story for what it happened. i don't know if you have anything you would like to say about that. >> you no, i couldn't follow the
trial on television. i couldn't do it. i don't think i had the patience for it and i was so dreading the outcome that i couldn't watch it. i feel like as i've gotten oldee anymore. i will go on wikipedia and look up the plot of different books just so i can read it beforehand and i don't have to be surprised. i couldn't handle watching the trial on television. i was sort of following the trial in some ways on twitter. when i saw the verdict, i was just stunned and of course immediately i thought about my brother. and i began thinking about my brother and how, you know thinking about the message